Opinion Why Feminist Frequency almost made me quit writing about video games: Part 5

The path to saving myself... and all other women in games.

Liana Kerzner

Published

By Liana Kerzner @redlianak

Editor's note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, nor should be attributed to, Metaleater Media as a whole.

(Note: the following may contain various game spoilers and descriptions of things that may be triggering as part of critical analysis. Reactions may be strong. Please be respectful in your discussion of the issues. It's strongly recommended to begin this series at part one.)

Welcome to the end of my five-essay mission. Hopefully by now you have a sense of who I am, how I think, and how much I love video games. Now we've come to the point where it's time to talk about positive improvements. I won't say "change," because I think people have had enough of that talk. There's more right with gaming than wrong with it, so it doesn't have to be "fixed." It just needs to be refined.

The big challenge is that on the issue of women in video games, it's a war waged on three fronts: the actual content of the games, what happens to real women at the corporate level, and the hostile online environment through which the bulk of video game discussion takes place. I think the last issue -- online interaction -- is the hardest one to tackle, so let's handle the easier ones first.

Back in August of 2012, I wrote an article for another service called "The Top Five Mistakes We're All Making With Women in Gaming." These top five mistakes have not changed with the rise of Feminist Frequency. In fact, they've become worse.

Thor - Goddess of Thunder

They are:

Mistake 1: We're too fixated on images. We keep saying "there's more to a woman than what she looks like" but we're not taking that advice.

Mistake 2: We're missing the bigger picture . Men are just as cartoonishly idealized as women, and this is a problem in all media.

Mistake 3: We talk about feminism without understanding it. In my opinion, this has gotten worse instead of better. Personal anecdotal experience is overriding true knowledge of the diversity of thought within the movement.

Mistake 4: All women have to agree for something to be pro-woman, right? Wrong. This has actually descended into "all women have to defend all women working in video games no matter what they do or else they have internalized misogyny."

Mistake 5: We're talking a lot, but we're not doing anything. There was movement on this, but the action was to remove women of a certain type from games completely, not work harder to make them better characters.

After three years of trying to have a reasonable dialogue about the role of women in the industry, I'm further behind than I was in 2012. Because instead of taking a positive, inclusive approach to encouraging female participation in video games, Feminist Frequency got to choose which types of women were good and which were bad.

But they made many men feel extremely alienated too, and after hours and hours of discussions, I think I understand why. Many men who are complaining about the "male privilege" angle have economic challenges, physical disabilities, or mental health issues that don't allow them to enjoy standard white male privilege. So they have no idea what the hell we're going on about, talking like the world is their oyster when it's not.

This viewpoint is totally valid. Privilege, like any concept, is good and pure as a theory, but gets right messy in the real world. Feminism should not be a war on men. As well as gender equality, gender harmony is extremely important. We have to be open to each other's perspectives. This isn't discounting the work of the radicals of the second wave. This is appreciating what they did for us, and recognizing that because they fought hard, we have to work smart.

We do have problems to address when it comes to gender in video games, and it won't come from giving Anita Sarkeesian lip service. It comes from consistent, unglamourous, unexciting changes in corporate mentalities.

The woefully low number of women hired by video game companies is only partially based on a lack of applicants with STEM degrees. Plenty of men in the industry have jumped from journalism to the developer side and they didn't have STEM degrees. Artists, writers and producers don't have STEM degrees. If a company wants female employees, or non-white employees, or any other particular type of employee, they find smart people and train them the same way you do when a company switches to a new game engine. Engineering schools are currently working on upping their recruitment of female students to achieve gender parity. It takes an active commitment to move that needle.

So don't buy this "we're not getting applicants" thing. The application process at many video game companies is opaque, especially at the websites that write about video games.

Women have voices too

There are plenty of female journalists, and plenty of women with opinions about games. Metaleater actually does care about different types of people writing about things on our site, and you can see that, because there are women writing on the site, despite a fairly small staff. Women. Plural. If a site with a smaller staff like ours can manage to include women, I have to ask why you don't see more of us at more corporate sites?

We're struggling to obtain even piecemeal freelance work, so it's very frustrating to see men at major video game sites sounding off about women's issues instead of giving women a chance to tell our own stories. I appreciate that there are a lot of men out there who really care about women's issues, but there's a very fine line between speaking in support of us and speaking over us. If you really think there's a problem with how male gamers react to women, they're never going to get used to it unless they're exposed to our opinions on a regular basis.

I don't need protection. I need opportunities. The best support you can offer a female writer is a job, then don't give up on her when the predictable Internet backlash ensues. People don't leave the business because of the Internet. You may hear that as a public reason, but it's absurd. They leave because they are not supported by their managers and coworkers, the day to day working conditions are exhausting and the pay isn't that great. Or they have other projects they want to work on that don't require as much abuse. Or they get downsized.

Metaleater logo

Let's face it, the skinny female characters that are Feminist Frequency approved -- Faith from Mirror's Edge, Chell from Portal -- are no more "realistic" to the majority of North American women than voluptuous ones are. We're not currently replacing glamazons with size 16 girls with jiggle. We just got more size 2s. The average American woman these days is 5'3" and a size 12-14, but overweight characters are persistently neglected as options in games that show 110 pound women being able to lift the same amount as a 220 pound man.

Furthermore, Feminist Frequency tends to recommend first person female protagonists. First person protagonists tend to have minimal dialogue and less defined characters than their third-person counterparts. In fact, Chell's gender is nearly irrelevant in the Portal games. That's good in terms of not perpetuating the idea that "male" is the default state, but I can't tell you very much about Chell as a character.

Characters in video games are as much metaphors in their physicality an an attempt to be realistic, especially in fantasy settings, and that's important to remember. Realism isn't always what the creators intend, and we need to keep this in mind when we critique costumes, body types, and in-game roles. Ideally, more than one woman is included in a game, so the women can be different and people can pick their favorites. Again, it's more important, from a feminist perspective, that women are included than that women are protected. Sensing a theme here yet? Good.

Chell in Portal 2
Chell in Portal 2

We need bravery when it comes to women in video games from all corners right now, and that's why I'm writing this. I almost bailed out of writing this so many times, but I have to stop being afraid of the Feminist Frequency fan bully hordes. More women in video games deserve to have a voice, but the sheer noise online makes keeping your head down make more sense in terms of self-preservation. However, keeping your head down doesn't make anything a damned bit better. I've always expected to get backlash from anti-feminists and the small number of legitimate misogynists that exist. I was knocked flat by the thought policing by other feminists. I didn't fight for the right to have a voice so I could sound like everyone else.

It's wrong that feminists get labelled "Men's Rights Activists" because we believe that men need to be considered when addressing the gender gap -- many feminists, myself included, have had to deal with pretty withering abuse from MRAs, so saying we are our abusers re-victimizes us. It's absurd to go on about trigger warnings while engaging in this sort of re-victimization. (For the record, I'm not saying all MRAs are bad people. I'm saying that movement has a radical fringe the same way feminism does, and some of those radical MRAs are legitimate vicious misogynists and I happen to have had some particularly nasty run-ins with them.)

A lot of women have been keeping their heads down while Anita Sarkeesian and her cruel online "fans" shame and belittle us. There just comes a point when people can't take that anymore. I don't even think Anita is in control of the situation anymore. I can see the online hordes turning on her if she ever told them that their attacks on other people were wrong.

We're experiencing a period in video games where well-meaning people are demanding art that attempts to influence the opinions of the people who play video games. Art that attempts to influence people's thoughts, feelings or beliefs is propaganda. Even though I'm a feminist, I don't want to play games that seem like feminist propaganda. I just want women in video games to be treated like people who matter instead of props in a story about men.

Sometimes female characters will be hurt and killed - just like the guys. Sometimes they will be heroes, sometimes villains. But the first step is inclusion, and right now, thanks to Tropes vs. Women, inclusion of female characters means heightened, out of context criticism of those characters. Those aren't good conditions for creativity where female characters are concerned.

Gaming also needs a form of feminist critique that treats games as games and not movies with a controller. I've shown ways in previous parts this can be accomplished.

And I prefer if women -- women plural, not just one token -- are involved in the development process. This doesn't mean that men can't write female characters. It means that diverse creative teams create better products. And it would be nice if more women were able to get opportunities instead of hearing excuses regarding why another white dude was hired while the fan base gets blamed.

The good news is that the process of creating a great female character isn't complex as long as your development process doesn't see men as "normal" and women as a deviation from the norm. As some developers have pointed out, character development currently exists in a paradigm where male characters are the default while creating a female character seems to require a reason. Since global population is about evenly split, I think game designers should have to have active reasons for making a character male as much as making a character female.

Prostitute in GTA
A prostitute in Grand Theft Auto.

Furthermore, because sex workers are real people who exist in the real world, there is nothing inherently wrong with including strippers and prostitutes in a game. They should just be used as people, not health stations. Even objectifying camera angles have their place provided they're used thoughtfully. There are times that these devices are used irresponsibly, making the game less fun for many players, both male and female alike, and we should be able to talk about these situations. Many men don't like seeing badly written, brainlessly objectified female characters any more than women do. Bad writing is bad writing.

The same goes for depictions of sexual assault. People go crazy when you try to talk about this, but it's important. Sexual assault and sex with dubious consent should be a part of video games because it is a part of the world. Sexual assault should be clearly, realistically portrayed as a crime of violence and power, not a crime of sex. Sexual assault should not be treated as a fate worse than death, and it should not be portrayed as something that only happens to women. Men are sexually assaulted too. There's a whole piece in itself on sexual assault in video games. I may tackle the topic if I don't get harassed off the Internet for just for this article series. We'll see what happens.

GTA V blonde

Sexual assault should be clearly, realistically portrayed as a crime of violence and power, not a crime of sex."

It's been a big eye-opener for me to see the "other side" of feminism. I thought I was radical, but I had no idea how deliberately provocative and downright mean some activists can be. It's important not to use feminism to excuse our own shortcomings, and the thing that makes sexism so insidious is that sometimes it's hard to tell when I really do have to work on something about myself, and when it's just never going to be enough because a particular person will never put a woman in the job I want as anything but a token.

For instance, I'm not sure that the current gaming intelligentsia is ready to get behind a woman who wants recognition for the clarity of her ideas, not her compelling personal narrative, since Anita Sarkeesian tends to draw a lot more headlines than Jade Raymond or Amy Hennig. But the headlines aren't pointing out that she's announcing new initiatives while Feminist Frequency is still extremely late in delivering the complete Tropes vs. Women series. It seems like the gaming press is giving Sarkeesian a pass on being really late on delivery when they'd massacre any game developer for the same slip. That's really discouraging.

If we want to be seen as equals, we need to show that we can get the job done with a certain level of quality, on a reasonable timeline. I can't blame people for resenting something that seems like special privileges.

Now, that doesn't excuse the monstrous things people have said to Anita Sarkeesian online. An inability to make deadlines doesn't warrant threats of violence. I think we can all agree that online forums for video game discussion tolerate a whole lot of abusive behaviour. The disagreement stems from whether that's an inherently bad thing, and whether there's anything we can do about it. Both the gaming press and the mainstream media has framed the issue approximately as "online harassment must stop because women as a whole are terrified," which is disputable. So I'd like to reframe the debate so that it can be more productive.

Video games are fun, and bigotry and harassment aren't fun."

Video games are fun, and bigotry and harassment aren't fun... well they may be for some people but they aren't fun for me. Women pay the same price for games that men do, and therefore we deserve an equally fun experience, free from demeaning comments that make the experience less fun.

The fun surrounding video games isn't just playing them. It's about talking about them with fellow fans, and sometimes even the developers. If that dialogue is going on in an abusive environment that women find uniquely unpleasant, then we're having a less fun experience surrounding video games which means we're receiving less value for our money. It's not a safety issue. It's a customer satisfaction issue.

I can't speak for other women, but I play video games, in part, to get away from the judgements of my body, personality, and sexuality that I face every day in the real world. It may be stupid, but even though the character isn't me, it's nice to experience being seen as attractive with little-to-no downside regarding that. That's not my experience in the real world. In the real world, I'm never attractive or thin enough to be considered beautiful, but I'm too attractive and shapely to be reliably considered intelligent. In games, I get a break from that. You could say that I use video games as a sort of out of body experience - my gender doesn't matter, my appearance doesn't matter, and I avoid forms of multiplayer gaming where it does matter. I just want a break.

For women that work in the video game industry -- and many other industries, frankly -- being singled out for your gender or sexuality goes beyond annoying. I've experienced how women are seen and treated differently in work and personal spheres once subjected to crass sexual comments. Male co-workers don't know how to handle it, and some of them do ridiculous things instead of having a conversation about it. It sucks to be an office distraction, so after it happens a couple of times, you usually decide that it's best to just avoid any sort of public attention. This is a supposedly benign form of sexism, but it still impacts our career advancement. People make promotion decisions based on some pretty ephemeral stuff. Again, the current paradigm is protection over opportunity.

It's even worse when a co-worker is the source of the harassment. It's incredible how many so-called professionals in the video game industry don't know how to discreetly handle a workplace harassment complaint because they're completely conflict adverse. They talk a good game about harassment, but in real terms they just keep punting the ball down the field instead of actually taking action. This is something that could be improved with training and proper policies, but you're likely not going to get that in a start up with nine employees.

This has nothing to do with the Internet and everything to do with the internal workings of companies. I wouldn't give a damn about idiots on the Internet if I didn't feel like Internet commenters are used as excuses to mask the opinions of so-called professionals.

Liana and Momo

It's undeniable that the Internet, as it currently exists, is a cruel, punishing place for everyone. Chan culture is founded on deliberate violation of social, moral, and interpersonal boundaries, because anonymity is, in itself, a boundary. Any attempts to set boundaries as one would in real life -- for instance, requests for the behaviour to stop -- bring more trolling. But before anyone accuses me of blaming 4chan/8chan for all the Internet's ills, it's becoming more and more accepted that Twitter's brand of anonymity has become the new containment pen for the most wretched monsters of the Internet, and Tumblr is widely known to be a call out culture wank pile. The containment never contained as well as people thought.

When someone's personal boundaries are frequently violated, they feel harassed. When a person is subjected to a public flaying of their reputation based on little more than conjecture, they're going to feel harassed. But some don't consider these things to be harassment, because in anon culture, they're normalized. When that's combined with a social justice cause the results become even uglier, especially since the video game industry has no accepted, standardized definition of harassment people can use.

In a perfect world, the whole harassment issue should be solved simply. If someone - male or female - asks you to stop doing something, stop doing it. The problem is that Twitter is increasingly used as an online frontier justice-style lynch mob. Lynch mobs fight dirty and use situational morality. These lynch mobs attack both women and men, so we need an anti-harassment strategy that helps all victims of harassment and doesn't discriminate based on gender.

The reason I have chosen to focus on Feminist Frequency's theories and not a critique of Anita Sarkeesian as a person is because I think that criticisms of her theories is fair. Criticisms of her entire character are not. I generated over 23,000 words in rebuttal without a single personal insult... although there were a few snarky quips I threw in just because they made me feel better. I'll totally admit that.

I do not believe, for a second, that Anita Sarkeesian is faking the harassment she received. Obviously I disagree with her a lot on both style and substance, but I don't see anything in what she's done that would naturally result in the threats she's received. Who cares if they're credible or not? They're uncivilized.

I don't understand all of the bullying and harassment that takes place in her name for the same reason. So people disagree with her? So what. She's doing fine.

Clearly, I think there's a place for disagreement and dissent among video game fans, media, and developers. What I don't like are the attempts to shout down differing opinions through sheer numbers. Everyone who has to work in this industry is sick to death of the entitlement, but that entitlement has proven strangely infectious.

I want a video game community based on fun games and fun people, not these petty turf wars based on identity politics. Video games are an inherently experimental art form, so various parts of the industry screw up a lot. But we also collectively get a lot of things right, and I don't think there's been enough focus on that.

Video games create safe environments for men (and women) to explore more tender emotions, teamwork, and deep connections to characters. Fear, sadness, helplessness, love, despair... and yes, even lust... in video games, these are all things that the player is allowed to feel without rejection. Perhaps we need to stop thinking of games as male power fantasy and see them as male acceptance fantasy.

Now, granted, one group's idea of "fun" is another group's idea of abuse, and that's an undeniable issue in video game communities. But we can't claim to advocate equality and have one set of rules for men, another for women. Men shouldn't be expected to take more abuse than women. I don't think anyone should be subject to the amount of abuse that currently takes place online.

I'd much rather shape the debate by talking about things that I want to encourage instead of things I don't like. If something slips, okay, point it out. But provide positives too. For instance, as much as Dragon Age Inquisition frustrated me, I loved Cassandra as a character. I wouldn't change a thing about her. She was awesome and perfect and I loved her. See? Nothing makes me happier than being able to say something positive about a game.

Our criticisms need to be limited to stuff we actually find harmful, not stuff we just personally don't like. Our critiques have to be accurate and fair, not based on out-of-context images. In short, video game feminism needs to make sense in the interactive context of video games. Gameplay shifts everything, because the player is not a passive audience.

It makes me really sad that so many people think that modern feminism isn't necessary, or that it's inherently unpleasant. I believe that a positive, fair form of feminism that's specifically developed to treat games as games could be good for everyone in gaming, male and female alike. I think gaming should be like TV and film in that it's not seen as something that's stigmatized because it's primarily for men. In order to get to that point, we need some feminist expertise.

And obviously feminism is just one element of diversity in video games. The work feminists do intersects with issues of sexuality and race. The great thing about gaming is that it's a global industry, so there are a lot of viewpoints to take into consideration. That can be overwhelming, but I believe it can lead to better products.

Dragon Age Inquisition

Nothing makes me happier than being able to say something positive about a game."

Cassandra

So instead of quitting, I'm going to try to be a positive alternative. I don't need anyone to become a feminist and I don't plan on demanding changes to existing games. All I want to do is provide a perspective that might not have been previously considered. I think most of the sexism in modern games is a symptom of lazy game design, not hateful intent on the part of the developers. So it's fair to examine those game design issues, because that's what good game critique does.

And hey, I may be completely wrong in my ideas. But at least I'm trying to offer solutions instead of just criticisms. I don't have to be 100% right and I welcome respectful dialogue. I love hearing what people love about games, their perspectives, and their own stories. I'm looking forward to the day where we see just as many stories told by women as men, because I really believe the various genders can learn from each other.

So this is my first offering in that endeavour. It's unfortunate that it stands in opposition to Feminist Frequency, but hopefully Anita, Jon McIntosh and company can see the criticisms as a belief that they can do better. Gaming is a big industry. There's plenty of space for more than one feminist. In fact, we need more women's voices, even if they don't identify as feminists, because women are gamers. Not girl gamers, just gamers, because gamers are not, by default, male.

Thank you for staying with me for this five part series. I look forward to your respectful feedback, and please, keep loving games!

Images courtesy of Marvel Studios, Microsoft Studios, Valve Corporation, Electronic Arts, Rockstar Games, and Feminist Frequency.